How the heck did we get here? A history of affordable housing in Seattle

As the city reviews its current housing programs, Geoff Spelman recounts four decades of affordable housing initiatives.
Crosscut archive image.

An affordable housing development in West Seattle.

As the city reviews its current housing programs, Geoff Spelman recounts four decades of affordable housing initiatives.

Some things worked, some failed. Some opportunities were lost. Some are the envy of other progressive cities. As Crosscut thinks about affordable housing as part of its Community Idea Lab, we remember the affordable housing policies that have come before and the effects they've had.

1970:  Boeing chooses not to develop its supersonic aircraft (SST). Tens of thousands lose their jobs and vacancy rates hit 16 percent. Seattle goes into a serious funk. Even the rain puddles are depressed. People are offering you their house for free. They are actually willing to give you the key rather than see it go back to the bank.

Kurt Cobain is only three but later would later write: 

Disease covered Puget Sound

She’ll come back as fire, to burn all the liars 

And leave a blanket of ash on the ground

Is he thinking about Seattle’s housing plunge because it rhymed with grunge? Clearly not. But speaking of fires….

1970: Fires in downtown! After two multi-fatality fires in downtown single-room occupant (SRO) buildings, the Ozark fire ordinance is passed.

Preservation Seattle, an online newspaper of the nonprofit Historic Seattle, would later write:

These two tragedies, which were some of the worst in Seattle history, resulted in retroactive amendments to the fire code in 1970 and to the minimum housing code in 1972. The laws collectively became known as the Ozark Hotel Ordinances, and mandated extensive safety upgrades for most of Seattle's older hotels and apartments -- upgrades that many owners could not afford. As a result, thousands of low-cost housing units were lost, buildings were vacated, redeveloped or demolished, and the character of some of Seattle's oldest urban neighborhoods was forever changed.

Many buildings remain closed from that point onward and the housing market took a tumble: Rents for one-bedroom units fell from $141 in 1968 to $109 in 1971.

1975: Many of the buildings affected by the Ozark Ordinance are in the International District. Concern with preserving cultural identities and affordable housing sparks the creation of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority and International District Housing Alliance.

These groups start out as activist organizers, defending the district from the effects of the Kingdome, but eventually morph into non-profit housing developers. Despite a variety of financial incentives, many building owners in the ID resist the call to upgrade their buildings and the upper floors of many buildings remain empty.

Crosscut archive image.

A Kingdome protest in the International District. Photo: IMLS Digital Collections.

A long recovery continues. Homes are available in Wallingford for $25,000. That would be for a home on a double lot, but who cares? No one has any money, and the city is still trying to find its feet after getting clobbered by the Boeing bust.

1975: With rents now rising off depression lows, feisty attorney Marie Donohoe organizes a campaign for rent control. Landlords show up in force and Ms. Donohoe and her campaign are squished at a hearing before City Council. 

1976: Capitol Hill Housing begins as a home improvement program, but later morphs into a stalwart neighborhood-based housing development organization.The organization first renovates and later builds new buildings, providing 1,800 housing units in 44 buildings.

1978: An important year for housing and growth. 

  • Seattle home prices, after languishing, suddenly shoot up, the first of several end-of-decade jumps. The city launches new zoning code, which manages to simultaneously anger both single-family preservationists and housing activists.
  • Neighborhood organization Southeast Effective Development (SEED) calls for 1,000 units of new low-income housing to be dispersed throughout the city.
  • Activist John Fox and the Seattle Displacement Coalition start meeting in the basement of a Capitol Hill church. John is single-minded — he decides to devote himself to the issue of preserving Seattle's affordable housing, particularly downtown. He will spend the next forty years plying his argument that the city has a moral responsibility to preserve affordable housing.
  • Reverend David Bloom, associated with the Church Council of Greater Seattle (and a co-conspirator with Mr. Fox), calls attention to rising prices and displacement. The Church Council starts a task force on Housing and Urban Decay, later changed to Housing and Urban Growth. This explicitly marks the change from community concern about decay and disinvestment to concern about the consequences of reinvestment and growth. Looking for the beginning of churches and tent cities? In a 1978 Seattle Times article, Reverend Bloom ponders “an intriguing possibility” for churches to look at the property they own and find ways to use it to reduce the housing crunch.
  • Meanwhile, the city launches a new zoning code, Single Unit Detached Residential. Among many inconsequential changes, one stood out, at least to traditional neighborhood interests: The city’s decision to change the words from “single-family” to “single unit.” Seattle yawns, except for someone on the Queen Anne Community Council. “Density is Death!” he shouts. Concerned about duplexes and a possible conspiracy to change the city's single-family zoning, he rallies the Federation. The Seattle Community Council Federation that is.

Originally founded in 1946 to help resettle Japanese-American internees returning to Seattle and help Black veterans coming back from the war, SCCF eventually morphed to protect and preserve traditional single-family neighborhoods. At one time, this was a powerful alliance of neighborhood organizations that had substantial clout. Even though the City Council was elected at-large, individual neighborhood councils like the Mount Baker Community Club — which gave birth to such leaders as Ron Sims and Norm Rice — could band together under the Federation’s banner and stop policy initiatives in their tracks. The Federation successfully blocks detached residential buildings in single-family areas, which will remain sacrosanct, off-limits to redevelopment. This means that other areas in the city will have to be the place for growth.

1979: Downtown and landlord interests, which successfully fought rent control for four years, are aware that rent control is taking root in San Francisco and are concerned that it not take put down roots in Seattle. In response to such concerns, in 1980, the Downtown Seattle Association works to incorporate a new non-profit, Seattle Housing Resources Group (SHRG), with a powerful insider board. Ostensibly designed to "…serve as a catalyst in making Seattle more livable,” some wondered if it wasn’t actually designed to thwart the advent of other, more activist responses. 

1981: The Seattle City Council responds to the need for affordable housing by putting forward a bond issue for $48.1 million to provide 1,000 units for seniors, the first of five voter-passed taxes providing over $400 million to build new and preserve existing affordable housing. 

The advent of federal money, such as the federal block grant program, increases optimism for local housing solutions. As do local housing levy dollars. 

A burgeoning affordable housing industry settles in in Seattle. The Seattle Housing Authority is seen as staid and cumbersome. Capitol Hill Housing and the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority are joined by SEED (1976), Plymouth Housing (1980), and eventually over 20 others.

Those organizations join forces in 1988 to create the Housing Development Consortium. The nonprofits and the local housing authorities claim to provide “more than 50,000 units of affordable housing via new construction, preservation/rehabilitation and vouchers in the King County region.” 

Non-profit housing developers sell elected officials on the idea of leverage — the idea that there is a lot of other, mostly federal money goin’ a wastin’ — money that could flow to the city if it would just put up a little. It would be like getting a new car if you just contribute the tires! Clearly, one would have to be an idiot not to want to take the federal money, so a process ensued with an increasingly wide variety of lenders and funders, each one “leveraging” the other. Later, it would not be uncommon for housing projects to receive funds from over ten different sources. Was the funding stream efficient? No. Did a slew of projects get funded and built? Yes.

1983: After years of prodding, the state finally approves the State Housing Finance Commission, a new state agency to finance the purchase and renovation of affordable apartments and to finance single-family homes — mostly via bonds. Nearly every other state already has such an entity.

1985: The King County Comprehensive Plan, a precursor to the state's Growth Management Act, is the first successful attempt to draw lines on a map restricting growth in rural and resource areas.

1987: Nirvana leaves Aberdeen for Seattle. No known connection to growth management. The country sees that there is a flicker of light in its northwest corner.

1986: Congress and Wall Street invent Low-income Housing Tax Credits, a dollar-for-dollar affordable housing tax credit. Financing gets even more complicated, but gobs of new money pours into what is now becoming the affordable housing industry.

1980s: Though Seattle pushes for in-city living in Belltown and the Regrade, almost nothing is built for at least a decade. Then, once the market is demonstrated, a plethora of development occurs, much of it of little architectural merit. But hey, look; you can live downtown with limited risk of a gunshot wound.

1989: Peter Steinbrueck and Prof. Folke Nyberg, both activist architects, become alarmed at a surge in downtown skyscrapers and organize the Citizen’s Alternative Plan (CAP) Initiative to slow growth. Downtown interests talk about the need for density and how it would support transit. Mayor Charlie Royer says that 50 stories should be the height limit for buildings, the Citizen’s Alternative Plan says 40. Where do they settle? Doesn’t matter. In a few short years the initiative is rescinded.

Owners of four potential buildings grandfathered in to earlier, higher height limits decide to move ahead with development. Was there enough demand for four new, large buildings? No, but all were built, and all were eventually foreclosed. The last one, Key Tower, was purchased by the city for offices for much less than it cost to build. Citizen’s Alternative Plan was dismantled by 2006. New buildings could again be built higher, but with some public benefits (See Bonus Zoning below).

1990: The Growth Management Act, a seminal piece of legislation, passes the state Legislature after several failures. It requires cities to plan for growth and requires counties to establish growth boundaries. Local governments negotiate about how much growth they should accept. Cities are left to grapple with increasing density to accommodate growth.

Note: The act required local governments to address policies “that consider the need and distribution of affordable housing,” but there were no specific requirements for affordable units. Seattle would continue to provide the bulk of affordable units.

1993: Sleepless in Seattle. Father and son live not in a single-family home but a houseboat. How cool is that! Frasier TV show takes place in a high-rise condo. The Seattle Post Intelligencer would later write,

Along with Microsoft, Starbucks and other recognizable symbols of Seattle's prosperity, 'Frasier' blew away notions of our city being an out-of-the-way backwater burg. This was the first TV series that showed a cosmopolitan Seattle…a city of fine dining, a winning baseball team, a first-class symphony, and, yes, a few great coffee shops. Its main characters quoted poetry, lived for the opera and generally reflected our proud intelligence.

1993: Mayor Norm Rice announces a new plan to distribute Seattle growth into Urban Villages, places where the city would like to encourage higher density. West Seattleites rebel at the notion of the west Seattle Junction becoming, well, something like Ballard in 2014. West Seattle defends Junction; nearly secedes from Seattle. The City Council removes controversial pieces, but adopts the plan. 

Twenty years later, West Seattle still clings to its familiar, low-density, homespun ways, but changes nonetheless.

1995: The Seattle Housing Authority decides to redevelop Rainer Valley’s Holly Park public housing complex as mixed-income housing. This is followed by High Point in West Seattle, Rainier Vista, and now, Yesler Terrace, the Northwest's first public housing project and the last of the old “garden communities.” (For the uninitiated, garden community = low income housing with a lawn.) 

Redevelopment of affordable housing consumes large chunks of housing money, but arguably takes the moral high road by replacing each unit it destroys and guaranteeing existing tenants continued subsidies. Or not? It’s Seattle. Arguments persist.

1998: Multifamily Property Tax Exemption (MFTE) Program. Developers who agree to build a certain percentage of affordable units get to avoid the real property tax for 12 years. This program began in 1998 and was highly targeted until 2008, when Mayor Greg Nickels decided to expand it to 39 neighborhoods.

Nonprofit housing developers were pressed to support this change, though few saw the benefit. Why? The program was designed to spur reinvestment in low-income neighborhoods, but was allowed to wander into all sorts of cushy neighborhoods like Ravenna, Crown Hill and Wallingford. Who wouldn’t want a 12-year tax exemption? Eventually, in 2011, the program would be tightened. In 2012, it would be subject to a critical audit. Councilman Nick Licata, who fought for more affordable housing during the South Lake Union rezone, has been a longtime skeptic.

Bonus zoning is introduced. The city offers greater development in exchange for a wide variety of goodies like hill climbs, outdoor loos and plazas. Not directly related to affordable housing, but a kissing cousin of Incentive Zoning. 

Crosscut archive image.2007 and prior: The city dives into Incentive Zoning, which allows developers to build larger buildings in exchange for something — often, affordable housing. In 2007, the disagreement begins. Then-mayor Greg Nickels contends, People who work in the city ought to be able to live in the city.”

“What do we derive from increased height and density?” Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck asks. “Clearly developers benefit…but what is the commensurate added value to the public?" 

You thought differential equations were difficult? 

The city has gone through several iterations of this tool, which is usually created by city experts sitting at a big table with developers.

The city, anxious to appease the many, offers additional building height in exchange for a host of goodies from developers like environmentally-focused LEED certification, daycare and affordable housing. Developers tell the city what is economically viable. Every few years the city adds up the affordable units and money it has received from developers and wonders, like a child after Halloween, if there should have been more. Rules are adjusted. The game continues. 

2014: In May, the city hosts an affordable workforce housing recommendations workshop with all the expert teams to develop a set of final recommendations. The City Council calls for yet more expert study on how to tweak incentive zoning.

What will come next? I can only say, stay tuned.


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